Co-ops and COVID-19: Seizing the Opportunity

While no one knows how much longer the COVID-19 virus has to play out, there’s a growing sense that life after the pandemic can’t just be a return to the status quo. The current crisis has shone a spotlight on problems that existed before (the climate crisis, growing inequality, precarious employment), and are certain to continue absent dramatic change. Life in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic is likely to be more difficult in some ways. But there may also be opportunities — ones the worker co-op sector must be ready to seize.

As with all businesses, co-ops, including worker co-ops, have faced economic crises before. But unlike conventional businesses, they seem to have weathered them with comparative success. Indeed, past crises have sometimes actually spurred growth in the co-op sector. In times of crisis, but not only in crisis, co-ops have demonstrated /resilience. 

When it comes to the worker co-op sector, this resilience has demonstrated itself in a variety of ways. One is that co-ops tend to have deeper roots in their communities, and thus are less impacted by disruptions in global supply chains. Another is that they emphasize sharing in both good times and bad, meaning that they’re more likely to keep workers on the payroll in the face of reduced business. And, of course, co-ops believe in supporting each other.

While it’s too soon to say what lasting impact the pandemic will have on the worker co-op sector, there are already examples of what were previously thought of as co-op values becoming more widespread. As Penn S. Loh observes, “the well-being of those who have been and continue to be most vulnerable are a matter of great importance to all, as their health is directly tied to everyone else’s. Caring for everyone is not just a moral entreaty, but a practical necessity.”

So how can the worker co-op sector ensure that these values outlast the pandemic? The answer may lie in demonstrating that worker co-ops are the solution not just to recovering from Covid-19, but to the other problems identified. There’s already evidence that worker co-ops are better positioned than conventional businesses to respond to the climate crisis, income inequality, and precarious employment. And now that the pandemic has exposed the failures of traditional capitalism to prepare for and respond to such crises, co-ops have a chance to show they’re a superior alternative.

As David Doorey observes, “All great economic transitions have followed on the heels of crisis.” But while this may be a golden opportunity for worker co-ops, the changes necessary to dramatically grow and strengthen the sector aren’t inevitable. Government support will be necessary, at a time when, as Doorey notes, politicians and people may be skeptical about interfering with markets. But as previously unthinkable changes that have occurred as a result of the pandemic have illustrated, they are possible. 

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What role could your worker co-op and/or the worker co-op sector play in creating a more just and equitable economy for Canadians if given the opportunity?